Through the roman empire, crusades, mayflower, and two world wars, hops was present during the most historic moments of all time and continues to grow in its impact on humans and potentially our future medicine.
Humulus lupulus (Hops) first originated in 736 A.D. in Bavaria. Hops is a perennial, which means it continues to grow year after year. Due to this, its very particular about what temperatures it can successfully thrive in and prefer a temperature range of 40 and 70 F. It is a monoecious plant, having either male or female parts, contrary to the typical plant that has both. The female flowers grow for about 120 days until they reach maturity, and the plant itself will continue to grow even after the flowers are harvested.
The flowers are then dried and those clusters are referred to as cones. Its important to dry the flowers first so they may be stored for longer periods of time but also because drying concentrates the active compounds in the flower. Working with fresh flowers, for example, results in diluted concoctions due to the trapped water and overall moisture in the tissue. This is also why, for example, you need less tea leaves when they are dried as to making tea with fresh leaves. In the case of hops, the cones are the source of beneficial compounds used for processing herbal materials and brewing, therefore the tissues must be dry.
Hops was first documented to be used for beer since the 9th century. Before then combinations of bitter herbs called gruit, made of plants such as dandelions and marigolds, were used to brew beer. With the first invention of this gruit beer, straws too were invented so as not to drink the fermented by-products that would settle at the bottom. Today, this drink can be replicated at tourist and novelty attractions for the public to try. Use of hops was an improvement of this original drink as it contributed not only antimicrobial properties, but flavor and aromas as well.
Hops' affiliation with the famous beverage earned it the name of a "wicked and pernicious weed" in the 1500's England. In the 1600's however, Germans so valued hops as a brewing herb that no tax had to be paid for its use and production, making it the preferred herb for brewing and further propelled its ever growing popularity. By 1629, the English and Dutch settlers had introduced hops farming to a young America. It’s signature flavor and antimicrobial properties gained it fame and delivered fortune to whoever grew it.
The English settlers brought Hops from overseas and converted it into a coveted agricultural crop. Due to its very particular growing conditions, only specific regions could grow hops. New York became a hops growing hotspot from the 1800's to 1900's, producing over 70% of United States hops. Hops became so proliferative that Otsego and Oneida County (in addition to neighboring areas) in New York formed the "hop belt" where farmers prioritized hops agriculture. This area was ideal for hops cultivation and produced over 1 million pounds of hops annually. After a century of plentiful harvest however, mildew disease and competition from the Northwest led to a reduced emphasis on hops in New York. Today, Washington state is the highest producer of hops in the US, growing over 74 million pounds of hops last year.
Hops is part of the small family Cannabaceae, making it related to marijuana (Cannabis sativa). The two diverged from one another over 20 million years ago, with approximately 73% genetic similarities. The main constituents of hops are their highly antioxidant flavonoids, making them valuable not only for human health, but also in preservatives (as utilized by early hops brewers). Xanthohumol is the main flavonoid of interest as it has been shown to prevent the growth of tumor cells and the potential to treat HIV. Scientific studies have show hops to be antimicrobial, anti-inflammatory, and antidiuretic. Presence of alpha and beta acids (the bitter components) is related to the anti-inflammatory effect and is believed to be the reason why hops have worked so well in preserving liquids throughout history. One study has also shown hops to help improve sleep, however this study found the best sedation effects when hops is combined with valerian, an already powerful sedative. Studies such as these further remind us to be careful of how data is interpreted and later publicised. That being said, many papers have in fact supported the overall consensus that hops can contribute to human health.
Hops found fame by its role in the brewing industry. Today the United States is shy of producing 50,000 tons of hops a year, with Germany, China, and the Czech Republic following. There is plenty of material to help quench the thirst of fine beers, however this plant could be put to further use as an antimicrobial or even anti cancer treatment. More is to be found on this timeless botanical species. What other historical beverages, or even pharmaceuticals, can come from this plant is still to be discovered. For now, the world will continue to enjoy the fruits, or flowers, of hops for the foreseeable time.
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